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  • Cara Richardson

The Way of Tea and Mia's Tea House, the Zenshin-an, “Hermitage of the Meditative Heart”

“Amidst the splendor of the scene,

and the silence,

I was filled with a wonderful peace.”

Bashō


Replica of the Saan Teahouse at Daitokuji Gyokurin-in, Kyoto, Japan. Maker: Yasuimoku Komuten Company, Ltd. Period Room. 2001.204.1 Gift of the Friends of the Institute, the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, the Commemorative Association for the Japan World Exposition (1970), the James Ford Bell Foundation, Patricia M. Mitchell, Jane and Thomas Nelson, and many others. Photo: Meg Ubel

This eloquent poem by the 17th-century Japanese poet, Bashō, could describe many experiences such as a moonlit night, a winter snowfall or, in this case, chado, "the way of tea.” In the West, chado is typically understood as the Japanese tea ceremony, but it also represents the essence of Japanese aesthetics and approach to life. The visual splendor of the carefully curated ceremony and the quieting of the heart and mind that lies beneath the splendor offers the guest of chado the opportunity to experience wonderful peace. This splendor, silence, and peace are all on display in Mia’s Japanese tea house, which is named Zenshin-an, “Hermitage of the Meditative Heart.”


I was first introduced to the Japanese tea ceremony as a docent at the Japanese Gardens in Portland, Oregon. The Portland Japanese Gardens have a traditional tea garden and tea house that, like Mia’s, was designed and built by Japanese masters. During public tours, I spoke about the role the garden and house played in the tea ceremony. In addition to the tours, the local Japanese tea organization hosted monthly public tea ceremonies and I was fortunate to be able to participate as a guest in some of these ceremonies.


Later, after receiving an M.A. in Japanese Art History, I lived in Japan and had the unique opportunity to study the Japanese tea ceremony with a tea master of the Urasenke tea school. Urasenke is one of three Japanese tea schools or lineages that trace their origins to Sen No Rikyu, a tea master considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of the tea ceremony (more about him later). In a local connection, tea ceremonies at the Como Park Japanese Gardens in St. Paul are hosted in the Urasenke tradition.


It takes many years of consistent, weekly training to become a chajin, or master of tea. After a year of studying with my sensei, or teacher, every other week, I passed the beginner entrance level known as Nyumon. The certificate I received states that I am now “ready to begin to study tea,” thus speaking to the serious commitment a student must have to become a master. A list and description of the levels one must pass to reach master is provided at https://chanoyu.world/kyojo/. During the year with my sensei, I learned many details such as how to enter the tea room, how to prepare a basic tea, and how to present the tea to guests. These experiences have given me a deep, well-rounded understanding of how the garden, the house, the implements, and the ceremony work together to create the experience of chado. They have also influenced how I view the world and live my life in a way that aims to appreciate and live mindfully each moment.


Cara and her sensei during her tea ceremony training. Credit: Cara Richardson


Touring the Tea House

Mia’s tea house was built in 2001 by a distinguished architectural firm, Yasuimoku Komuten Company Ltd., and is located in Gallery 225. The tea house has a name: a small carved signboard under the eaves reads Zenshin-an, or “Hermitage of the Meditative Heart.” I use the tea house whenever possible in my school-age tours, and I have found that every age group loves and is inspired by it. I purposely begin my presentation of the tea house in front of the garden, just within the doorway that leads to Gallery 219, which holds the samurai armor. I ask the students if they are familiar with green tea, in particular matcha, a type of powdered green tea. Perhaps surprisingly, many are. This may be due to today’s popularity of specialty matcha drinks such as Starbuck’s matcha frappuccino. (My 12-year-old daughter now makes her own version of this at home using my tea implements from Japan and matcha purchased locally.)


History of the Tea Ceremony

I continue with a brief history of the Japanese tea ceremony that I tailor to the group and the purpose of the tour. Here are the basics: In the 9th century, the Japanese first learned of tea through their various interactions with China. Later, in the 12th century Kamakura Period, a group of Japanese Buddhist monks traveled to China and was introduced to the school of Buddhism known today as Zen, which emphasizes meditation, self-restraint, and mindfulness. To help with awareness and sitting for long hours of meditation, the Chinese monks drank a type of green tea that was finely ground into powder and mixed with hot water, called matcha in Japanese. The Japanese monks returned home with the teachings of Zen Buddhism and the practice of drinking matcha.


Over time, the preparation and drinking of matcha developed into a refined ritual known as the tea ceremony. The ritual moved beyond religious purposes and became popular within the secular community. In the 16th century, a Zen monk named Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591) was tea master for the great warlords, or shogun, who ruled Japan, first Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) and following his death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598.) Sen No Rikyu built upon the ideas and traditions of tea masters before him. For example, Rikyu codified the use of the small rustic teahouse, or hermitage, set in a garden, as well as many of the implements used in the ceremony such as the flower containers, tea scoops, and bowls. His preference for the use of simple, rustic, Japanese-made items shaped the tea ceremony as we know it today.


Sen No Rikyu. Painting. Credit JapanUp! Magazine

Wabi is a term often used to describe the tea ceremony, its rustic accoutrements and simple, natural aesthetic as developed by Sen No Rikyu. The concept of wabi, deeply rooted in Japanese sensibility, has its origins in Zen Buddhism and can be understood as being free of material concerns and the details of everyday life. With this freedom, one can see and respect the beauty in a ceramic bowl’s imperfect glaze, a simple bamboo ladle, or the moss on an old stone. Fellow guide Lynn Brofman shared with me this quote by Sen No Rikyu’s predecessor, the great tea master, Murata Shuko (1423–1502), that poetically expresses the aesthetic of wabi:

“The moon is not so appealing as when it is obscured by the clouds.”


"Burst bag" Freshwater Jar, late 16th - early 17th century. Unknown Japanese. Iga ware, stoneware with natural ash glaze, lacquer cover. Note: This jar from Mia's collection epitomizes the Japanese wabi aesthetic with its irregular shape and scorched, cracked glaze. Gift of Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation. 2015.79.293A,B Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art


Sen No Rikyu lived during a time when the military elite known as the samurai ruled Japan. The samurai lavishly supported the arts, including the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony served as a way to display a man’s sophistication and aesthetic refinement. Invited guests included friends, business associates, and sometimes one’s foes. The peaceful, thoughtfully curated environment could serve many needs.

Walking through the Ceremony

When touring, I ask the students to look behind them at the Japanese samurai armor in Gallery 219 and imagine they are warlords wearing such armor and have been invited to the tea ceremony. I then lead the students through an imaginary ceremony, beginning in the garden.

Red-and-Blue-laced Suit of Armor from the Kii Tokugawa Familu, mid 17th century Suit by unknown Japanese Artist; Helmet by Saotome Iechika. Iron, leather, lacquer, silk, wood, gold leaf and powder, bear fur. Gift of The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 2009.60A-S Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art


For the guest, the garden serves as a liminal space between the outside world and the inner tearoom. Every aspect of the garden has been carefully chosen and placed to create a harmonious refuge for the visitor. It includes a winding path made of moss-covered stones meant to look as if they were placed there long ago by nature, aged stone lanterns, and various plantings. With every step, the guest sheds the outer world and moves toward tranquility and peace. At a gate, the host of the tea ceremony will greet the guests and welcome them into the inner garden, which we can see in Mia’s Zenshin-an. Here the guests, using a bamboo ladle, will wash their hands and mouth at a water basin, known as a tsukubai in Japanese. This is both a literal act of cleansing and a symbolic gesture of preparing the mind, spirit, and heart for the tea ceremony.


Tea Garden at the Japanese Garden in Portland, OR. Photo: Tyler Quinn


The tea garden at Mia contains three important elements that all tea gardens have: plants (in the museum setting, these are understandably not real), water (suggested by the tsukubai), and stone. The plants include bamboo, which symbolizes strength: bamboo can bend in the wind but does not break. As well, bamboo stays green year long, a sign of vitality. There is also a maple tree, which in Japan is a symbol of beauty and grace. Strength and grace are both ideal characteristics of a tea practitioner. Also found in the garden at Mia is a simple broom, which the host would have used to sweep the gravel before the guests arrived. In Zen Buddhism the broom is an important symbol for clearing out the dust and cobwebs in one’s heart and mind. Furthermore, the repetitive process of sweeping is considered an appropriate task to inspire mindfulness and awareness.


After appreciating the garden, the guest is ready to enter the tea house, a small simple structure designed to look like a rustic hut. I point out the small square door that leads into the house and ask if the samurai will be able to enter wearing their armor. The students of course realize this is not possible, and I point out that their armor and swords can be hung on the wooden rack near the house. The samurai must enter pure of heart, with a humble soul and free of weapons and ill thoughts. At the foot of the small doorway is a pair of rustic looking straw sandals called zori. These serve as a reminder that it is traditional in Japan to remove one’s shoes before entering a home, and are also symbolic of not bringing into the home outside dirt, both physical and mental.

Entrance to Tea House. Photo: Meg Ubel


For a ceremony at a small traditional tea house such as ours at Mia, about four guests would be invited. Each guest has a specific place to sit inside based on their status and role in the ceremony. Upon entering and sitting, it is important for the guest to look around and notice the details of the tearoom. The tokonoma is the small alcove where an ink painting hangs, and below is an incense burner. In other tea ceremonies, one will often find a container of artfully arranged flowers, known as ikebana, instead of the incense burner. The tea master chooses the artworks displayed in the tokonoma with care and purpose. The students on my tours enjoy finding connections between the artworks in the alcove and the tea house. They can think and wonder about what the curator might have meant by selecting those pieces.


Detail of Small Alcove in Tea House. Photo: Meg Ubel


After the guests are seated, the host will begin to make and serve the tea and often a sweet as well. Though this process may appear quite simple upon first glance, learning the steps of making a basic tea took me most of the year I spent with my sensei. It involved such things as learning how, as host, I was to enter the room, cross the tatami mats on my knees in a kimono, properly heat the water, use the tea scoop, whisk the tea, and finally serve the tea. At Mia, I show the students the featured implements used to make the tea such as the brazier, kettle, water container, tea container, tea scoop, whisk, and bowl.


Traditional Japanese tea ceremony. © Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo


In traditional tea ceremonies, all of the accoutrements (such as the flowers, the bowls, the kettle, and the kimono worn by the host) are carefully and specifically selected by the host based on the such factors as the guests attending, the season, the day, and perhaps the purpose of the ceremony (which might be for match making, gathering friends, or entertaining a difficult business partner). Every detail is important and cannot be overlooked. The proper guest will understand the choices and, when appropriate, will compliment the host on the selections.


Exploring with the Senses

At this point in my tour, I move away from the specifics of the ceremony. These specifics are just a framework that creates the previously mentioned “splendor” that can move a person’s heart and mind in the experience of chado. Beyond that is the quiet, the deeper beauty, so I have the students try to explore the experience with their senses. I ask them what they might hear in this rustic house with sliding paper doors, set in a garden. Based on their answers, I might ask them follow-up questions such as what do the birds sound like, what is the sound of steam or water boiling, what would rain sound like on the roof or wind in the trees, or what about silk rustling on the bamboo tatami mats. The younger students love to make these sounds out loud, and often the older ones do too. I ask them what they might feel — the bamboo mats, the rustic tea bowl, the silk of the kimono they are wearing. Other sensory questions might be about the taste of the tea or the sweet, or the smells of a garden, tea, and rain. This is a time for the guide and the students to explore and use their imagination. All of these sensory experiences color, shape, and give texture and depth to a carefully performed tea ceremony.


When ready, we move on from the main room and I point out the adjoining room the host uses to prepare and clean up after the ceremony. The students enjoy seeing the back passage that can be used by the host when needed. Finally, at this point in the tour, we have come to the end of the ceremony and our stop at the tea house.


I would like to end with a quote from “A Thousand Cranes,” a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, written in 1958. The tea ceremony plays an important part throughout the novel and this quote comes from a note about the ceremony provided by the author at the beginning of the novel.


Kawabata describes the tea ceremony as the “intersection of time and eternity.” He goes on to say, “The tea ceremony is a stylized way of preparing tea from water heated over a charcoal hearth. The smallest detail, from the charcoal to the receptacle for left-over water, must be carefully planned. The host pours water from an iron kettle into a handleless cup … adds powdered tea, and stirs with a bamboo whisk until an appropriate layer of foam has accumulated. The guest drinks according to a prescribed form and returns the bowl. That, on the surface, is all; but to the initiated the details of the cottage, the utensils, and the performance have given something more — perhaps only an impression of affluence, perhaps a sense of timelessness.”


Kimono-clad women participate in a Japanese tea ceremony in this late 19th-century illustration. Illustration: Toshikata Mizumo. Photo: Bridgeman, ACI


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2 Comments


Maria Eggemeyer
Maria Eggemeyer
Sep 19, 2023

Thank you, Cara! Your article was not only entertaining, but also enlightening. Thanks again for the in-depth look into Mia’s tea house.

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Mary Merrick
Mary Merrick
Sep 12, 2023

Thoroughly enjoyed this article - love to include the Tea House on tours and it is always well received. Love the idea of looking back at the Samurai armor to keep all in perspective. Thank you!


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